CF Montréal 2023 MLS SEASON PREVIEW | Projected XI, Key Questions & Predictions
It's a strange time to be a CF Montréal fan.
Sure, you're coming off one of your best seasons in a long time last year, as Montréal finished third in all of MLS before making it to the conference semi-finals of the playoffs. So, the expectation, rightly, is that this young Montréal side would take a big step forward in 2023... but success of this sort is a double-edged sword.
Montréal comes into 2023 having sold off a good chunk of their successful squad, with Alistair Johnston (Celtic FC), Ismaël Koné (Watford) and Djordje Mihailović (AZ Alkmaar) all leaving for $5+ million fees to European clubs. Those losses, along with the departure of head coach Wilfried Nancy to fellow MLS side Columbus Crew, has all but made the success of last year an afterthought. Instead, this new-look CF Montréal team (new logo et al) now faces a quandry; can they keep building on their positive momentum, or slip back into the lean years of rebuilding under a new head coach, Hernán Losada?
They'll be out to prove that it's the former, not the latter ... while also proving that selling clubs can profit and still win in MLS.
Projected Starting XI:
- MLS: 20W-5D-9L (65 PTS)
- 2nd in Eastern Conference (Conference SFs)
- Canadian Championship: Semi-finals
- CONCACAF Champions League: Quarter-finals
3 KEY QUESTIONS:
1) Can Djordje Mihailović be replaced?
If Montréal is to have any success, their biggest job will be replacing the offensive output left behind by Djordje Mihailović, who was acquired for $1 million in GAM out of the Chicago Fire and leaves the city after a career year in 2022 where he recorded an impressive 12 goals and 7 assists.
While the departures of Ismaël Koné and Alistair Johnston also loom large – the Canadian duo was integral to the team's success in 2022 – Montréal does have depth in midfield to mitigate their losses, doing particularly well to trade for Aaron Herrera to replace Johnston at right wing-back.
But at the no. 10 position, however? Montréal failed to bring in any such replacement for Mihailović, instead hoping that internal replacements such as Matko Miljevic (out injured for 2-3 months), Nathan Saliba, Mathieu Choinière, Ahmed Hamdi and Sean Rea step up and take the reins, with Rea impressing most at Valour FC in 2022. Considering that quintet has only scored a combined eight goals and added five assists across their MLS careers, it's still a big ask. Of course, the club will be banking on one of the five stepping up as Mihailović did when he arrived in Montréal, but even he came in with 7 goals and 11 assists in MLS under his belt... more than that group, combined.
The good news is that these five prospects are all very young, with Saliba (19), Rea (20) and Miljevic (21) still hungry for their chance to prove themselves. Choinière (24) and Hamdi (25) are also at a stage where they'll want to take that next step up and become important for this team, not just valuable. In a league where experienced no. 10's tend to run the show, it'll be a tall ask of the group to fill Mihailović’s shoes - it's up to them to answer the call.
2) Will lack of spending haunt CFMTL?
Anytime you’re able to make some key sales in the offseason, attention quickly turns to the simple question: Who can you buy to replace them?
Despite pulling in over $15 million in transfer fees, Montréal has been rather cautious in the transfer market. In fact, other than bringing in Herrera and George Campbell from within MLS, they've stuck to the bargain bin with their transfers, bringing in young Canadians Ilias Iliadis and Jules-Anthony Vilsaint on the cheap to round off their squad.
Because of that, it's left them with just one designated player, Victor Wanyama, heading into the start of the MLS season, which is less than ideal.
That’s not to say that you need to spend to have success in MLS anymore, something that Montréal and Philadelphia proved last year ... but in a league where DPs tend to run the show offensively, it's also not unwise to throw money at a player or two that can help you create offence.
Instead, Montréal is banking on a no. 6 as their big money option, hoping to let the pieces fall in place around him. That's not a bad thing, as Wanyama was excellent last year, but for a team that had all that money come in last season, it's a conservative strategy, and a bit of a shame, really, all of which could backfire if they can't find early success with their group.
3) How much continuity will new coach bring?
Speaking of replacements, Montréal's biggest signing might not actually be on the pitch. Instead, it's probably on the touchline, where the arrival of new head coach Hernán Losada looms large.
As he looks to fill the shoes of the highly-successful Wilfried Nancy – who went from being surprisingly handed the Montréal job following the shock departure of Thierry Henry to MLS coach of the year candidate last year – Losada comes to the city with all sorts of question marks around his name.
A solid coach in his last stint with D.C. United, he ended up wearing out his welcome after just 15 months due to his intense methods, which were designed to keep his team as fit as possible.
He comes to Montréal having learned from that stint, and has appeared to have been well-received so far by the club this preseason, but he has big shoes to fill, as many describe Nancy as a methodical detail-oriented thinker, one that really challenged Montréal players to rethink the way that they played.
Because of that, not only were they able to have success, but did so by playing some fantastic soccer, one where Montréal dominated teams in possession and defended well, which many will hope Losada can replicate.
The good news? There are a lot of similarities between Nancy and Losada’s philosophies, as Losada does like to play a similar up-tempo style of soccer, using a similar 3-4-1-2 formation to Nancy's preferred 3-4-2-1, so there is a chance for some continuity there.
Especially given that he inherits a backline and midfield that actually remains relatively unchanged to the unit that was one of the best defensive teams in MLS by most advanced metrics, that gives him a good base to build off.
But offensively, there are some big shoes to fill, so Losada will certainly have to prove his worth with how he gets Montréal firing in that regard, which will be no easy task.
Player to watch: Victor Wanyama
The club's lone Designated Player, Wanyama wasn't even going to return until a late change of heart near the start of preseason, as he looked set to move on after a dominant 2022. Now back in the fold, however, he’s going to play a huge role for this young team, who will need him to control play on both sides of the ball, while providing key leadership. No doubt that he can do that, but he’s going to have to be at his absolute best for his side to have any success, making him a player to watch for this 2023 season.
Montréal will do well if… their defence holds up, and James Pantemis proves that his strong ending to last year was no fluke. Last year, Montréal had some struggles in goal despite their defensive dominance, but succeeded despite that due to their strong offence. With question marks up front, they can’t afford such slip-ups this year, so look for them to rely on their defence a lot this season, especially with the likes of Kamal Miller and Joel Waterman still around despite attracting European interest off the back of their strong play in 2022.
Montréal will struggle if… their youngsters can’t find a way to take a step up this season. After moving on so many players, they’ll be asking some young players to play some big roles, and if they can’t do that, it’ll be a long season of wondering if Montréal might’ve been better off investing in some veterans that could’ve replaced those who left. There’s a lot of young talent in the Montréal academy and on this team, so it’s not an impossible ask, but it’s certainly a lot of pressure on players who you would’ve hoped could’ve been eased into these roles, instead of being asked to sink or swim as they now will be.